The face of famine
Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the October 2005 issue.
"Aminu's dead." Charlie, my producer, tells me when he gets back from the intensive-care ward. Aminu was 4. Yesterday he seemed better. Yesterday was a long time ago.
That's all the nurses said. They don't know exactly what killed him. They don't do autopsies here. No point. No time. He was starving, but that's not what finally did him in. Aminu's body was riddled with infections, he might have had malaria, his skin was peeling. "A zinc deficiency," they said. I don't even know what zinc is.
The United Nations had been warning about food shortages in Niger for months, but who pays attention to press releases? In the television age nothing is real without pictures: starving kids, bloated bellies, sunken eyes -- Sally Struthers stuff. Warnings don't get headlines, crises do. Malnutrition sounds so bland. Famine? Now that's a showstopper.
Niger isn't suffering from famine, however. Adults aren't dying, just thousands of kids. It's a food shortage, a hunger crisis, severe malnutrition, none of which is ready-made for TV. In July the U.N. warned that tens of thousands of children were facing starvation in Niger. The BBC came, so did CNN, but no other American cable outlets bothered to show up.
When I landed in Niger, the gin-swilling British businessman sitting next to me stared out at the endless stretch of sand and scrub brush and burst into tears. "They have nothing," he mumbled to no one. "The children are dying."
"What's your problem?" the Air France steward asked as he sauntered by. "People are dying every day, all over the world." He was tired of dealing with drunks.
The truth is, it's hard to see the hunger, at first. There are fields of corn and sorghum and millet. "This isn't a famine, it's a sham-ine," I heard one nervous newsman mutter, concerned the images weren't going to be what his bosses back in the newsroom were expecting.
The hunger is there, of course -- you just have to look closely, let your eyes adjust to the light. Crops are planted, but harvest is a long way off, and there's little food to get families through till then. A plague of locusts and a devastating drought decimated last year's crops, so there's not much food stored up. The adults can live off leaves and grass, but the kids need nutrients, and there are none to be had.
In a makeshift hospital set up by the relief group Doctors Without Borders, hundreds of mothers sit with their starving kids, waiting for help. The kids can barely move, can't even focus their eyes. Some cry; others just sit silently, too weak for tears. Their hair is falling out, their skin, dry, is cold to the touch, no layer of fat between flesh and bone, nothing to cushion the pain.
When a child is severely malnourished, his body breaks down, devours itself. The fat goes first, then the muscle, then organs -- liver, intestine, kidneys. The heart shrinks, pulse slows, blood pressure drops. Diarrhea dehydrates, the immune systems collapse. Feet and hands swell with water, limbs get riddled with sores.
The kids die from infections, disease; their little hearts simply give up.
Niger isn't the worst, and TV likes superlatives. More kids have died elsewhere, more people have been at risk. It's not the worst, but it sure as hell is bad enough.
On TV I suppose it all looks the same. Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger. Another year, nameless children, endless loss in Africa. Of course, all deaths are not the same. Each child looks at you differently, with a different kind of fear, a different kind of pain. I've seen more than my share of children dying and parents weeping, and I still can't imagine what it's like. Lying on a plastic mat, no sheets, no privacy, medicine only for the lucky. I suppose some people get used to seeing it, to covering it. I hope I never do.
The mortgage, bills, friends, even family -- it all seems so far away. Calls to make, appointments to cancel -- none of it matters when you're out this far in the field. With money, of course, you can always survive, always find a place to stay, food to eat. I stocked up on tuna and power bars, but eating is sickening when those around you are hungry.
You tell yourself you're doing some good, your stories will matter, but the truth is, you're really not sure. You can't stop the kids you meet from dying; you realize you're of no use to them at all.
They are buried in unmarked graves. No headstone, no service, just a quickly dug hole, and a tiny body wrapped in a shroud. From a distance it looks like an oversize seed hastily planted in the sand. A little mound is all that remains. It barely reads on camera.
Aminu was buried hours after he died. His mother lives in a faraway village and returned home the very same day.
She's seen death before; her entire village has. Her mother lost children, her grandmother lost half of her 38 grandchildren, 13 of her great grandchildren. She can't even remember all their names.
When a child dies at night in Niger, they let his mother sleep by his side. I can't get this image out of my mind. Did Aminu's mom speak to her baby in the pitch black of night? When she opened her eyes in the morning, did she think her child was still alive? How many seconds was it before she remembered?
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